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Sen. John McCain was wrapping up his last campaign speech in Iowa on Friday when an audience member turned the tables.
Don’t listen to the “screwballs” in the media and the voices “on the left,” the man lectured. He told the Arizona Republican to stick to his guns, particularly in defending the unpopular war in Iraq.
“Senator, you’re too nice,” said the man, Ron Coppi, 69, of West Des Moines, Iowa. “I want you to be a modern-day Winston Churchill. You need to be that because you need to be heard over the din. These people will not listen. You’re just plain too nice. You need to tell them what’s at stake here.”
The presidential contender stared at the ground and deadpanned into the microphone: “If you’re not busy, I’d like to take you with me.”
There was a burst of laughter inside the big tent at Waukee’s Centennial Park, where folks came to munch barbecue and hear McCain.
The senator might have needed the pep talk. When he arrived in Pella, Iowa, earlier, those “screwball” reporters put him on the defensive with a string of downer questions.
They asked about the war, of course. But they also bugged him about his decision not to compete in the Ames Straw Poll in August. Was he conceding the state? Did he see the guy in the big yellow chicken costume picketing outside?
What about reports that McCain’s supporters were starting to defect to former Sen. Fred Thompson?
And the reporters wanted to know who was to blame for the collapse of an immigration bill that he had so loudly championed in the Senate. Had he heard what Rep. Tom Tancredo, R-Colo., said that morning?
“I think this is, sort of, the death knell for John McCain’s campaign,” Tancredo said during a televised interview.
In Waukee, the same man who gave McCain his pep talk also ripped into Congress for passing legislation authorizing a border fence in 2006, only to leave out the money to pay for it.
“If that border had been secured, Senator, and if you put some troops down there, whatever, and showed the public you were really serious about this, I absolutely am certain you would have gotten everything you wanted in this bill,” Coppi said.
“Thank you, sir,” McCain said. “I’m not sure I want to take you with me.”
These days on the campaign trail are testing the mettle of this former prisoner of war.
McCain likes to say he wants to be president to do the difficult things, not the easy things. But that means his stump speech is one long prescription for tough medicine, without the sweet, syrupy promises of some other campaigns.
Once held captive in North Vietnam, McCain now is a sort of captive to the frustrating war in Iraq.
McCain says the war was “mismanaged” from the beginning, but he also has positioned himself as the most unapologetic supporter of the recent troop surge. In the face of growing public angst, he tells crowds that the new strategy has shown “some success” and must succeed.
“If we leave, there will be chaos and genocide in the region,” McCain says. “I have no doubt about that, and they will follow us home.”
He talks about sacrifices on the home front. Republicans, once the party of fiscal discipline, were corrupted by power and spent “like drunken sailors,” McCain says.
That’s why they lost in 2006, he says.
He lectures crowds about difficult decisions needed to fix Social Security, saying that everything short of raising taxes should be on the table.
It’s all part of his campaign’s unmistakable story line: “To do the hard things is why I’m there,” he says. “I’m not there to do the easy things.”
But now, the immigration issue is proving to be one of the hardest things of all.
In Washington on Friday, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich said McCain might not be able to overcome “the burden” of his immigration stand.
The next morning, at a breakfast reception in Newton, Iowa, the first four questions to McCain were about immigration. A fifth questioner laughed and said he’d keep his immigration question in his pocket so he could ask about McCain’s favorite topic — wasteful government spending.
“Thank you,” McCain said with a big smile.
But, sure enough, three of the next five questions were about immigration.
Doing nothing is “de facto amnesty,” McCain says, so he challenges critics to reveal their own plan.
McCain knows immigration is a tricky issue for him. With the gloomy prediction about his chances to survive it, Gingrich “may be right for all I know,” McCain told ABC News’ George Stephanopoulos in an interview that aired Sunday.
Still, McCain is keeping the sense of humor that made him a popular draw on the stump. He calls himself a conservative, but he liberally borrows one-liners from the likes of President Ronald Reagan or the late Arizona congressman Mo Udall, a Democrat.
Bipartisan humor is a subtle, silly way for McCain to remind folks he doesn’t fit into a partisan pigeonhole.
Being a maverick only got him so far in 2000, when he gained early momentum only to hit a brick wall that George W. Bush had built in South Carolina.
After the defeat there, “I slept like a baby,” McCain says. “Sleep two hours, get up and cry.”
Since then, some critics have accused him of giving up his renegade mantle. They point to his efforts to make peace with religious leaders he once criticized.
Meanwhile, he still gets bashed by conservatives for working with that liberal of liberals, Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., on issues like immigration.
In the interview Sunday, Stephanopoulos quoted unnamed observers who refer to the McCain campaign as “dead man walking.” McCain brushed the comments aside, pointing to polls that still show him at or near the top of the pack in the early battleground states.
The perception that he’s imperiled by his immigration stance made this a pivotal week for citizen McCain. But if he’s worried, he didn’t show it in Iowa.
In Waukee, he reminded Republicans that they need someone like him to appeal to independents — the fastest-growing segment of the U.S. electorate.
After he wins, McCain told the crowd, “I’ll reach out to Democrats, and you tell Democrats to reach out to me.”
(Contact M.E. Sprengelmeyer at sprengelmeyerm(at)shns.com)